CCDE in the crosshairs

I officially kicked off my preparations for the CCDE exam this week here in Chicago. I flew up here to attend the INE CCDE Practical Exam bootcamp. I was in class Monday through today, and it’s over now. Time to unwind and sum up my thoughts.

The format of the class was a bit different from the other bootcamps I’ve attended. This one was not designed to teach you the topics. It assumed you already knew them. There were several exam scenarios that we went through that were, according to the other attendees, far more in depth than what we’d see on the actual exam.

Most of the attendees were in their final stages of preparation, and were attempting the exam immediately after the bootcamp ended. I was the only one in the class who was actually beginning his prep.

The class was absolutely packed with talent. There were less than 20 attendees, but a total of 36 CCIE certifications among us. We had 2 6-CCIEs. As the class went on, I began to see that there is indeed a difference between pure engineers and others.

Each section of the scenario was designed to promote discussion on the best way to approach the design and solution. The other folks in the class who were highly technical really got into the weeds on some of the scenarios. I began to discover that a large portion of the exam is reading comprehension. That sounds like something you’d find on the SAT exam, but it’s a huge part of the CCDE.

You have to be able to read through the customer scenario quickly, and understand the key elements that drive the design. The scenarios are packed with extraneous information, much like what you would find when dealing with a real-life customer. In the design world, there are a million different solutions for customer issues, but if you pay attention to the details, you can pick out which direction the customer (or the exam) is pointing you. Obviously you need the technical experience to be able to decide the correct solution for the given scenario, but without that comprehension, you can very easily get lost in the technical details.

It’s the interaction between the technology and the customer that is what interests me. That is why I’ve chosen to go the CCDE route, as opposed to pursuing more CCIE certs. I feel that it fits my personality. It makes me happier to interact with customers and discuss the technology with them, than it did to just configure the solution.

When I was studying for the CCIE Route/Switch, I had a really hard time learning the technology. It’s because in that exam track, you are configuring it with no purpose behind it. You just read the exam and do what they tell you. When I attempt to learn something with no interesting motive, my brain just doesn’t engage. When you are designing a solution for a customer, you are solving a business problem, and it’s very interesting to me. The customer is obviously interested since they have a financial stake in the solution. The whole thing is way more interesting to me that way, and I find it much easier to get my brain engaged.

Back to the class. Brian, the instructor, was great. He never got stumped, and led the discussions in some really great directions. I’d say that at least 75% of what we talked about was Service Provider level Layer3 discussions, which is entirely out of my wheelhouse. Regardless, I was able to understand and keep up with the discussions.

My purpose of attending the class was to come away with a clear study plan, and I was able to do that. I have my reading list, and my plan of attack. Now I just need to execute. My goal is to pass this exam on the first attempt. Attending this class was the best first step I could take.

My road to Zen

One of my goals during the week that Meg was in Paris was to attend another Intro to Zen session at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, which I did. I posted a facebook event that I would be attending and invited my friends to accompany me.

For better or worse, I’m basically an open book. I don’t play much in my life close to my vest. Another way of putting it is that I don’t have much to hide about myself personally. I suppose some people who are in my position may have been reluctant to post that they were going to a Zen Buddhist zendo and learning about meditation, and I would have understood. That isn’t the way I operate. I’m just a man trying to find his way in this universe. I’ve discovered that there are many friends, acquaintances, etc, who are in the exact same position that I am in, and I’ve received a lot of positive responses to the things I’ve posted. I’m not harming anyone, or speaking ill of anything else anyone might be doing towards the same goal, therefore I feel very comfortable having my thoughts out in the public.

My road to Zen began a long time ago. I was not raised as a Christian. When my parents were together, my dad didn’t really do the church thing. As an active alcoholic, I suppose he was more of a hedonist, and felt like he had better things to do with his time. When my parents got divorced, my mom worked two or three jobs at a time, 7 days a week, so we weren’t attending church. I did go with my brother to my grandmother’s church 4 or 5 times a year though. This was a tiny Methodist church, in rural Alabama, maybe 30-40 people there on any given day. Simple service, a simple sermon, some songs, and then some food. I understood it, and appreciated it. I appreciate it all the more now that I am older as a binding force in that small community, with genuine positive energy.

I did grow up in LA (Lower Alabama) though. Christianity is prevalent and predominant. If you aren’t a member of a church, well then you aren’t a member of certain social organizations. As a kid, I felt the effects…I grew up poor, on food stamps. I shopped at goodwill, went shopping at the poor grocery store. I was smart, wore glasses, had braces, was a nerd. I had a lot of strikes against me, socially. As I grew up in Dothan, I was treated marginally at best by the popular crowd, all of whom were church-goers. Christians. Very few of which exhibited what you would hope from a member of that religion. None of my peers in school were “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or behaving towards the least of their brothers as they would towards Jesus Christ. Their parents weren’t any better. As coaches on the various sports teams I was forced to play on by my mother (who I have nothing but respect for, after all she was working 3 jobs and I needed some structure), they turned a blind eye to the bullying I endured, I can only assume they were hoping it’d toughen me up. I’ll admit, I became angry, bitter, and resentful, and in my opinion, justifiably so.

Side note, I’ve since matured and so has my understanding of Christianity. I’m blessed to be friends with, and work with, many members of that faith who perfectly exemplify its virtues.

I spent my middle school years building up a really good resentment towards Dothan, my classmates, and their social structures and beliefs. By the time I got to high school, it was at a rolling boil. At this time, fate intervened, and I was given a chance to make a decision that would affect the rest of my life. My mother informed me of the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science. Go ahead and laugh. Make a joke about oxymorons or whatever, trust me I’ve heard them before and totally understand. In a nutshell, it’s a public boarding school in Mobile Alabama that, at the time, was for junior and senior high school students. You applied much like you would for a college. You had to take standardized tests to get in, and get recommendations from teachers, counselors, and community leaders. They accepted one or two students per city. This was my opportunity to leave this mess and get a fresh start, and I took it.

I applied with my friend Aaron. He didn’t get accepted, but I did. This school was something I’d never even imagined. They’d taken the most creative, most academic students from all over the state, and dropped them into basically a college setting. The classes were taught by college professors, to the exact same standards. We were living on our own in dorms, some of us hours away from our families.

That was my first interaction with a diverse group. There were gays, lesbians, trans, androgynous, you name it. Black, white, asians of all types. Half the teachers were foreign. There were bible thumping Christians, Hindus, my RA was two steps from becoming a Catholic Monk and had studied with Jesuits all over the place. Every socioeconomic stratus was represented. The school had a total population of less than 200. I think my graduating class was around 80 people, if that.

I suppose that two year experience is what got me to understand that there was more to life than the weird bubble I’d been living in back in Dothan. That there were different ways to live. During one of my classes, I picked up a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is really more of a philosophy book, but it does mention the practice of Zen. I took that a step further and started reading more about it. It just made sense to me.

Tomorrow I’m going to be attending my first official Zen meditation session. I’m nervous as hell. I don’t know all the protocols and procedures, but I’ve been the intro session twice and they assure me that it’s very low key, and everyone has been super friendly. I feel at home so far.

My understanding is that the practice of Zen meditation can be understood as a way to understand yourself, so as to no longer be limited by yourself. This is not an intellectual exercise. Quite the opposite. The thoughts and feelings that crash through my mind and heart on a daily basis are difficult to deal with and at times terrifying. The effects of the life I’ve lived, the resentments and negative trenches I’ve dug in my psyche as a result of my experiences, have always felt out of my control.

When I meditate, when I clear my thoughts, when I disconnect myself from the maelstrom that is my thoughts, then I feel that I can truly begin to live the life that I was meant to live. One not burdened by hostility, resentment, or anger, but lifted by hope, positivity, gratitude, and true happiness.

I find it very difficult to express just why Zen Buddhism has resonated with me so strongly. Most Zen teachers, if you ask them specific questions about how it works and why, they are just going to reverse the questions back to you, so I don’t want to misrepresent Zen in any way here, but the general gist of it is this: We are each awakened, enlightened beings. We meditate to reconnect ourselves with our true natures, which is already enlightened.

This resonates with me. I believe in self determination, having seen the effects in my own life. I have no doubts that I am made of powerful stuff. At the same time, I feel no connection, no sense of control, or balance in my life. I feel that by pursuing the path of Zen, I will be able to reconnect with my enlightened nature, destroy the unhealthy structures that I’ve built for myself, and realize my full potential as a human being in this existence we share.

To understand that it is a shared existence is a step forward for me. I am friends with many great people. We are all walking our own paths towards understanding as we revolve around the sun. My feeling is that you should do whatever you feel is right in order to make yourself truly happy, and help others along the way.

Wil Wheaton put it succinctly. “Don’t be a Dick.”
So did Bill and Ted. “Be Excellent to Each Other.”

Looking forward to tomorrow, and the days after.

Time to throw down the gauntlet

I’ve been working on my professional development plan this morning. I’ve been at Nexus long enough to get my sea legs, and I’m starting to understand the value I can offer, and what I need to do to maximize that. That being said, I’m putting the goal out there for the world to see:

Cisco Certified Design Expert: End of this year
Cisco Certified Architect: 3 years.

When I got started in the Cisco Partner space, I went from nothing to CCIE Voice in 2 years. If you think I can’t accomplish these other goals, you don’t fully understand my motivation and capability.

Here’s some descriptions from Cisco’s website:

The Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) certification identifies networking professionals who have expert-level knowledge and skills in network design. CCDE certification emphasizes network design principles and theory at the infrastructure level. This prestigious credential recognizes expertise of network designers who can support the increasingly complex networks of global organizations by effectively translating business strategies into evolutionary technical strategies.

Cisco Certified Architect is the highest level of accreditation achievable within the Cisco Career Certification program. CCAr recognizes those who can effectively translate complex business strategies into infrastructure requirements and clearly communicate and advocate the proposed architecture.

As a systems engineer, both of these certifications are very relevant to what I do. Where the CCIE program focuses on engineering and implementation, the CCDE/CCAr track is focused on design, an extensive understanding of the product portfolio and technical capabilities, but most importantly, being able to effectively communicate design choices to the customer. Working at Nexus, our customers range from small to global in size, and I want my abilities to be able to scale as well.

As a systems engineer, I’m basically starting from scratch. My portfolio knowledge is limited, as I’ve been away from the cutting edge, but my motivation has never been higher. At Nexus, I’m now in the correct environment to take my abilities as far as they will go. Also, I’ll admit it: I hate being just another guy. As a CCIE at Nexus, I’m surrounded by more talented folks, and I really hate that :)

So, I’ve decided to pursue this path. I work best when moving towards seemingly unattainable goals, and this is pretty crazy :) . I’ll benefit by having relevant milestones to achieve. Nexus will benefit because my pursuit of these goals will translate into a more effective engineer, who will also be motivating those around me to achieve higher levels as well (as they’ve done for me).

When thinking this through, I could feel the puzzle pieces falling into place and a peace came over me.

Achieving these goals will not be easy. The CCDE I’m more confident in, since it more closely follows the CCIE model: written exam, then an 8 hour scenario based practical exam. I can probably pass that in one or two tries. The CCAr is completely uncharted territory for me. I’m not even sure Nexus has ever even had an employee sit for that. It’s a year long process very similar to defending a dissertation to a board. It’s also really expensive. Regardless, it seems like a good career move for me, and a good PR move for Nexus as well. I don’t think a lot of VAR/Partners have Architects on staff. I’m pretty sure there are less than 100 in existence. Here’s a link that expands on the CCDE/CCAr topic a bit.

I’ll be spending the rest of the afternoon breaking apart this monstrous task into a series of small achievable blocks. The first of which is to schedule and pass the CCDA. Like I said, I’m starting at the bottom. I’ve done it before :)

Spring reboot!

Right now, my wife is in Paris. Is it weird for someone’s significant other to have a separate vacation? For me, it isn’t. You all know that Meg has had a rough time over the past 4 months. A week in Paris is just what the doctor ordered. You may not know this, but Meg has an ancient connection to that city. I’m convinced she lived there in a past life. I’ve been there with her, and she’s a native, plain and simple.

It is just me and Jonathan here at the house for at least a couple days. He’s in bed asleep right now, and I’m watching “The Meaning of Life” and drinking bourbon. I’m taking this time to clean things up, and sort of reboot myself. Things are going very well at work and at home, but I think a re-evaluation of things isn’t bad. I sort of feel that it is necessary on a regular basis, lest you find yourself coasting through life without any purpose or meaning.

Next week, while Meg’s dad is visiting and watching Jonathan, I’m re-visiting the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. I’ve invited some friends who’ve expressed an interest in either meditation or Zen in the past, so it should be fun! I’m really looking forward to that.

Also, I will be rebooting my efforts to get physically fit. I’ve discovered that the only real time I have to exercise is in the morning before Jonathan wakes up, so my goal next week is to do my routines between 6am and 7am. I also want to take at least one afternoon and ride my bike. Ideally I will be able to add some “barefoot” trail running in there somewhere with my Vibram shoes.

Spring is here, and I feel like I want to make a fresh start. I’ve been with my new company since August and I’m feeling like I’ve successfully made the transition back to the world of Cisco and now it’s time to start putting my stamp on things. I have a plan that I’m putting together that should get me where I want to be. When it comes to work, my mantra has been “become indispensable”. I’m not there at Nexus, but it’s only a matter of time.

Meg and her dad have rented an apartment in Paris for the month of July. He’s retired, and she’s a teacher, so they can do that sort of thing. The company I work for is a Cisco partner, and Cisco’s end of fiscal year just happens to be in July. I’m trying to work it out so that I’m on vacation a week and working remotely for the rest of the month, but I’m not sure that will be possible. Any other month and I don’t think I would have any issues. In any case, everyone else will be in Paris for July. I’m hoping that if I do get to spend some time there, I’ll get to see some of the 100th running of the Tour de France :) Regardless, I hope to spend a day in Brussels with my artist friend Chloe, and enjoy Paris in the summer. I’ve only ever been when it’s been gray and cold.

I’m going to continue to sort through my work/life balance. It’s been quite a journey over the past 6 months :) This should be an eventful summer!

Swing on this

Mood swings have been a part of my life for a long time. It’s been something that I’ve never really attempted to understand about myself, up until recently. I just sort of accepted it.

The first time I remember even realizing it was one time my brother and I were visiting Dad in Athens just prior to me graduating from high school and moving in with him. We were joking around about something and having a good laugh when I think I spilled something and Dad went from laughing with one breath to his familiar “GOD DAMN IT!” with another. The abruptness startled me, and him apparently. He calmed down a bit and tried to explain it by saying that for him, happiness and anger were almost identical emotions, and it didn’t take much for him to go from being happy to angry.

I thought that was really strange, but after that incident, I started to notice that I wasn’t much different. I concluded that it was my circumstances and puberty and all of that, and it’d work itself out.

Fast forward 20 years (holy shit i’m getting old). Puberty has long since past for me. My circumstances are awesome. I have an amazing family, my career couldn’t be going better, there’s really nothing substantial to complain about. My mood swings are still here, however.

Confession: After Jonathan was born, I had a sort of postpartum stress situation that my doctor prescribed some mood altering medication for. It worked great at smoothing out my mood swings, but the problem was it squashed any sort of emotional peaks along with the valleys. I was flat-lined throughout my time taking that medicine. After Meg and I got used to having Jonathan, I stopped taking the medicine. My mood swings returned, but the time I spent without them gave me a new perspective. I decided that I didn’t want to medicate myself to deal with this.

I’ve spent some time now medicine-free. I’ve got a new appreciation for just how strongly I feel all of my emotions, but I’ve discovered a really peculiar issue. Whenever Meg is feeling down, my mood is lifted. When she’s happy, my mood drops. It’s like clockwork. It’s actually gotten to the point where she is disguising her good moods because she knows that if I see her happy, I’ll automatically either become depressed, sad, or lose my motivation.

Needless to say, this sort of situation is not sustainable. It’s not like I want her to be sad or depressed. Quite the opposite! I’m glad she’s starting to get back to being herself after the horribleness of the past few months. Regardless, I still react the way that I do. I can’t understand it, but Meg I think understands a bit more than I do. She mentioned that I didn’t exactly grow up around happy people. She’s right. Growing up, Mom, Matt, and I had it rough. We were always under a lot of stress just to get through life. I’m not saying I wasn’t a happy person, but there was always that background stress going on. It is sort of my default setting to hunker down and kick ass when I’m under pressure. When Meg is feeling upset or down, I step up. When she’s happy and relaxed, it’s like I default to my old setting of unhappiness.

All this tells me that I have some bad habits stuck in my head that I’ve learned in life. I need to work on “unlearning” them.

Course Correction

For the past two days I haven’t exercised. My scheduling was less than stellar and I ended up with too much going on and I didn’t make it enough of a priority.

I felt kind of down about it. I felt like the momentum I’d built went to waste. But this morning while I was in the shower I thought about it and I got over it.

In the past I would go full throttle on life changes like this. I’d be all in, obsessed about it, and then the very first time I faltered, I’d drop it. Now I think about things a bit differently. I’ve come to terms with the fact that for me, it isn’t possible to make a change and have it stick without undergoing some hills and valleys.

I think of it using a ship metaphor. I’ve made a course change and set out for a new world. During this process, my course is going to deviate a bit, the wind may go out of my sails. So every now and then, I’ll just need to make a course correction. A light touch on the steering wheel. I may need to reconsult my maps and compass (meditation).

The point is, it’s normal to have to do this, and it is important to be flexible and not be too hard on yourself when the winds change a bit.

Exercise will resume today, the journey continues.

Towards a more balanced life

Work/life balance has been on my mind a lot lately. The pursuit of the perfect balance has led me to make some life changing decisions over the past year. I’m going to sort of sum those up here, and comment on how it’s going.

New Job!
In August I left my previous employer, NACR, where I worked from 2005, for a company called Nexus IS. It was a very difficult decision due to the relationships I had with my coworkers and managers, but it was an easy decision as well. I was burned out. I needed something new, and I’d decided to renew my focus on Cisco products. I’d met with Kenny and Nick Marus, who both worked at Nexus and were friends of mine from my Best Buy days. Through them, I learned that the corporate culture at Nexus was just what I was looking for. Nexus puts the well being of their associates at top priority, with the understanding that if their employees are happy, fulfilled, and leading balanced lives, they will work hard to do a good job. Well, it’s true, and I’m thoroughly enjoying my time here so far.

Here at Nexus, I’m surrounded by intelligent, motivated engineers. I’m really going to have to work smart and hard to rise to the top here, and I’m loving it. This move is what has allowed my other work/life balance decisions to come to fruition.

Meditation
I’ve recently begun to meditate on a regular basis. I went to the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and received basic instructions there. I converted the space under my staircase from a makeshift play area for Jonathan to my own meditation space. I meditate for 20 minutes at a time, concentrating on my breathing, for 3-4 times a week. It has had a very positive effect on my well being. I began this shortly after the accident in which my mother-in-law died. I credit meditation with making it possible for me to be centered throughout the turmoil that resulted from that accident, and enabling me to be strong and solid for my family. In short, it’s been fantastic for my work/life balance and I look forward to continuing it. I plan to attend the ASZC more often for more formal Zen instruction as well.

Exercise
I started exercising last week. I’m 5 days into Power 90, which is a 90 day cross-training program. My goal is to finish that and move directly into P90X, which takes Power 90 to “the next level”. I have a couple of fitness goals. I want to ride my bike regularly, and start running. This weekend I’m cleaning off the mountain and road bikes. There are a lot of bike riders at work, and it wouldn’t take much to get some regular rides going.

As for running, I am almost done reading “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. It’s great, and it focuses on running barefoot, essentially. I’ve tried running before and didn’t like it. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the aerobic exercise. I’ve ridden many miles on my bike and loved it. But it hurt my feet and legs. After reading through the book, I thought I’d like to try running “barefoot” since it is supposed to strengthen your feet and legs and allow you to use your built in “suspension” system while you run.

To that end, I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers shoes that are designed for trail running. I’ve been wearing them around the house and while I do my Power 90 routines. The first couple of days my feet and legs were absolutely killing me, but I’m starting to see the benefits. Sure they look totally silly, my wife and father-in-law make fun of me relentlessly, but it’s working, plus my son thinks they are cool! After a few weeks of breaking them in, and breaking my feet in, I will start walking/running with them outdoors. My friend Jim has asked me to participate in a “Mud Run” in August, which is sort of like a 5k through mud with obstacles. I want to do it in these shoes!

In summary, in just a few short months, my work/life balance has taken a tremendous swing towards a truly balanced life. I still have a lot of work to do, but my decisions are having the desired effect.

The Rebirth

This site has been unused for quite a while. I’m going to zap it and bring it back in a new format.

Now that Meg is going back to work, things are a little more manageable around the house, and I’ve discovered some free time (and money) to explore some hobbies of mine that have fallen by the wayside. The first and foremost is cycling.

I’ve been riding my mountain and road bikes fairly consistently, and we just got a nice bike trailer so that Jonathan can ride too!

I’m going to redo this page to incorporate biking, as well as some other things, and also maybe consolidate my Facebook and Twitter posts.

Look for more soon!

Neglected

I admit, it’s been awhile since I posted on this site. Thanks to that, some jerkoff hacked me. He exploited the fact that it had been awhile since I’d updated the WordPress code that my blog is built on, and ran a script that exploited a bug and replaced my home page with some bullshit.

It took me about 5 minutes to fix, but it gave me that freshly violated feeling. I’m not very fond of that feeling.

So, now my site is up to date, and I think I’ll start posting again. Meghan of course is continuing her stream of photos and updates on our Shutterfly site. Jonathan is growing like a weed. I’m betting that he’s over 20 pounds when we take him to the doc’s on Dec 1st. He’s got really good control over his arms and hands now, and can totally hold his head up. Yesterday I had him on my lap and he was doing crunches trying to sit up.

Thanksgiving is coming up. We’ve decided that we aren’t driving anywhere for the holidays this year. We want to have Jonathan’s first holidays here at home. We went and bought a bunch of Christmas decorations, including a tree, so after Thanksgiving it’s going up. I predict that Jonathan is going to get a massive haul of Christmas presents this year. I also predict that I’m not getting squat.

Back home, finally!

Meg and Jonathan are back home in Athens! I’m so happy to have them back that I can barely stand it. Being away from them for weeks at a time was the absolute worst.

I’m taking the next two days off to spend with them. It’s not a two week vacation but it’s a start.

Update

Sorry I haven’t posted more, but everything they tell you about how difficult the first couple of months of a new baby are, is absolutely true.

Jonathan has been crying a lot, Meghan is totally exhausted, and I’ve been working and traveling. Meg has been forced to stay with her parents because I’m not able to take my shifts thanks to being out of town for work. I’m really grateful that they’ve been able to help us because I don’t know what we would have done without them.

So I’ll be away from Meghan and Jonathan for about three weeks. I’m not pleased with this at all. But I have so much work that will be involving travel and late nights that there was no other way. Our office is undergoing some major changes that should keep me from having to be away so much, but i have to get through these next couple of weeks first.

So I don’t have any new videos or pictures to share but Jonathan is doing well. We are just hunkering down and trying to get through the first couple of months.

Thoughts

Well, my mother-in-law Mary went home today. She has been with us since Jonathan was born. Honestly, I don’t know how we could have made it through the past couple of weeks without her help. She didn’t sleep much while letting Meg and I get some sleep and recover from the birth ordeal. But her help went much further than that.

Obviously, Jonathan is our first baby. Meg was really worried that she wouldn’t know what to do to take care of him. And anyone who knows me knows that I am not a baby person. Mary really helped us to understand how to go through the every day routine of taking care of a baby. And the diaper-changing tricks that she taught me have saved many shirts from getting peed/pooped on already.

But the best was just helping us know that Jonathan wasn’t just going to drop dead, and that when he cried, it wasn’t the end of the world. I am so thankful that she was able to spend the time with us that she did.

Now we are on our own, and so far so good. Little Jonathan is getting bigger by the day. He is almost 9 pounds now. The doctor says he is doing great. He’s not sleeping through the night yet, and it is random whether he’s alert during the day or night, but we’ve got awhile to go before he gets straightened out. Our big task now is for Meghan to learn to sleep when he is sleeping, and to let me handle him if he’s not hungry. We’re still breastfeeding so when he’s hungry, there’s not much i can do, but i’m a diaper changing, baby-calming machine, and during the weekend when i’m not working, i’ll work overtime to help her get some rest.